by Tiffany Hearsey
The killings of John T. Williams, Jesse Sarey, Giovonn Joseph-McDade, and Jacqueline Salyers by police devastated Seattle-area communities. Now, their families honor and preserve their memories with public memorials. Williams’ Honor Totem Pole towers above a throng of tourists at Seattle Center. The patch of grass where Joseph-McDade took his last breath now hosts a bench — a resting place for a grieving mother. In Tacoma, a cross overlooking a freeway brings together an Indigenous community in remembering Salyers, a mother of four who was pregnant at the time she was shot and killed by a Tacoma policeman. And at the CID’s Wing Luke Museum, a memorial quilt bears the name “Jesse.” Sarey’s family, and others who grieve the lives of their loved ones killed by police, hold on to the hope of healing and a fight for justice so that police who kill will be held accountable.
Over the past decade, these memorials honoring those killed by law enforcement have gone up across the South Seattle area. The slain range in age from early 20s to middle age, and hail from Indigenous, Black, and Cambodian backgrounds. Their families, who were instrumental in erecting these objects of remembrance, strive to reclaim space and memory crushed under the weight of police violence. They also seek healing and solidarity with communities who have been impacted by the men (and women) in blue. As Jesse Sarey’s cousin Steven Sarey expressed, the memorials are “not just for our family, but other families, too. To give everyone else hope. We’re all in this together, trying to bring peace.”
Jesse Sarey Memorial Quilt
Stitched into a patchwork of remembrance are the fingertip-brushstrokes of the family of a man whose life ended too soon. They reach up to touch the fabric on display at the Wing Luke Museum. The quilt, emblazoned with the name “Jesse,” honors the 26-year-old son of Cambodian refugees who was shot and killed by Auburn police. Made by the Social Justice Sewing Academy, it shows images of Jesse Sarey’s heritage as well as his Buddhist roots. It also shows photos of him as a little boy and young man, life’s passage from childhood to adulthood, a journey violently cut short. Last year, the fabric crossed over from the living to the dead when it was draped over Jesse’s mother’s body after she tragically went into a coma and never recovered.
Cousin Steven Sarey hopes the quilt will bring awareness about police violence, and that those who view it will “not have to go through what we’re going through.” On May 31, 2019, Jesse, who was unhoused and struggling with mental health issues, was sitting unarmed outside a convenience store. According to court filings, Jesse was experiencing a mental health crisis. Police officer Jeff Nelson attempted to arrest Jesse for disorderly conduct, when a confrontation ensued, and Nelson shot Jesse. He said that Jesse tried to grab his utility knife, but witnesses contradict this claim, stating that Jesse had already collapsed.
Nelson has been charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault. This was his third killing while on duty, and he is the first officer to be charged with murder since Washington voters passed I-940 in 2018. The bill requires mandatory de-escalation training for police officers as well as implementing the “good faith” standard. Prior to the law’s passing, an officer could only be charged with deadly use of force if they acted with “malice.” Jesse’s family, whom he affectionately called “the fam bam,” are hoping for a conviction.
As the family waits for the trial to begin, tentatively scheduled for this fall or in 2023, they want the public to know about Jesse’s life. Steven’s wife, Kelli Saeteurn, remembers Jesse’s love of wrestling, basketball, and spending time with his nieces and nephews. “He had a soft spirit,” she said.
Former foster mom Elaine Simons recalls Jesse’s excitement when she took him and his brother to their first WWE wrestling match. When they got home, the brothers were practicing wrestling moves and broke their bed, she remembers fondly.
For Sarey’s family, it’s crucial to speak about these moments and happy memories. With so much focus on how he died, Simons emphasized, “How he lived, that’s important.”
John T. Williams Honor Totem Pole
As Rick Williams carved into a block of wood at Seattle Center, where his brother’s memorial — the 34-foot-tall John T. Williams Honor Pole — stands in Seattle Center’s Broad Street Green, the blade of his pocketknife was like an extension of his body, holding the memory of generations of Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations woodcarvers. His quiet voice lifted and fell with the rhythm of each cut. Angling his knife, much like the one his brother was carrying when he was shot and killed by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk, he said, “I always have to focus calm. I have to focus my anger and rage.”
On August 30, 2010, 50-year-old John T. Williams was walking near the intersection of Howell Street and Boren Avenue with a pocketknife and a piece of cedar wood when Seattle police officer Ian Birk ordered him to drop his knife. John, who was hearing-impaired and losing his eyesight, was shot within seven seconds of first being approached by Birk. Birk claimed John lunged at him with the knife, contradicting eyewitness accounts. When officers found John’s knife on the ground, it was closed. The police department’s own Firearms Review Board found Birk’s use of force was not justified.
Rick recalled that right after his brother was killed, “everybody wanted to fight.” But, he explained, his grandfather taught him how “to be a warrior without violence.” To honor his brother, a master carver who loved carving the kingfisher bird and sold his first design at the age of 3, Williams spearheaded the Honor Totem project.
Members of the community helped Rick make the massive totem pole from a red cedar tree using hand tools and pocketknives. The carvings include depictions of mother raven and a figure of a woodcarver, honoring the family’s legacy. When it was completed, they helped Rick walk the totem from the waterfront to Seattle Center in 2012. Rick said of the community’s involvement, “People wanted to be part of something good. They wanted to be part of something pure that’s untouched by society, and that’s your heart.”
Giovonn Joseph-McDade Commemorative Plaque and Bench
“I know he’s not buried here,” Sonia Joseph said of her son Giovonn. Motioning to a spot on the ground, she continued, “But this is where he did take his last breath and bled into the grass. A part of him is here.” The sights and sounds of children playing at Canterbury Park in Kent are a sharp contrast to the killing that happened on a summer evening in 2017.
On June 24, 20-year-old Giovonn, a student at Green River College, was pulled over for expired car registration. The unarmed Black teenager drove off, and police chased him to a cul-de-sac ending at Canterbury Park. Officers allege he was speeding and that he tried to run them over. However, a federal judge ruled evidence disputed the officers’ claims. In 2021, the city of Kent settled a $4.4 million wrongful death lawsuit with Giovonn’s family. Part of the lawsuit was the installation of a bench and plaque. The plaque is engraved with Giovonn’s name and beginning and end-of-life dates.
Sonia remembered her son as “a kind, caring person. He always wanted the best for everyone.” His brother Sayvion talked about his mom’s fight to get justice for his brother. He looked at her and said, “I feel proud.” He continued, “Seeing my mom cry over my brother is sad, but we’re on a bench rather than on the floor crying.” He hugged his mom and said, “She’s an amazing woman.”
Jacqueline Salyers Cross
Lisa Earl faced a large wooden cross, the hum of a busy freeway below intertwining with the soft rhythms of her lullaby. She was singing to her daughter, Puyallup tribal member Jacqueline Salyers, who was killed by Tacoma police six years ago. The cross is decorated with balloons, flowers, and handwritten notes that read “love, healing, prayers, frybread” and “Justice for Jackie, Justice for All.” Family and community members stood behind Earl, forming a protective circle in the Tacoma neighborhood where her daughter was killed. They come to this site every year for a vigil to honor the young mother and call for justice.
On January 28, 2016, Tacoma police attempted to execute a warrant on Salyers’ boyfriend, who they knew was armed and dangerous. The two officers didn’t call for backup when they approached the couple, who were seated in a parked car. Officer Scott Campbell alleges that 32-year-old Salyers accelerated the vehicle toward him. He shot the pregnant mother of four in the head, killing her. The officers were not wearing body cams, and a street camera installed by police malfunctioned the night of the shooting, a claim Salyers’ family finds suspect. To this day, they challenge the officer’s account of that night and call for a renewed investigation.
After Salyers was killed, the family helped lead the way in passing I-940. Earl remembered, “Jackie was our strength to keep moving forward trying to get justice not just for us, but to preserve our future and to stop the violence by law enforcement.”
Earl said her daughter was “the most giving person, she’d give you the shirt off her back.”
Salyers’ family strives to honor Jackie’s memory and bring about healing and accountability. Her uncle, Puyallup tribal council member James Rideout, emphasized that those killed by law enforcement, like his niece, are the “the voiceless who can’t speak for themselves. We are their voice. We speak for them.”
The memorials erected to those killed by law enforcement speak to us about justice, healing, and remembrance, but only if we listen. It’s a language that has the power to reclaim space, challenge police violence, and honor the memories of those taken so tragically.
📸 Featured Image: Puyallup tribal member Jacqueline Salyers was killed by police six years ago. Her mother, Lisa Earl, sings a lullaby to her daughter at her memorial. (Photo: Tiffany Hearsey)
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